Conditions in Fashion Manufacturing
Drop-Dead Chic

Ruins of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory, Bangladesh 2013
Ruins of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory, Bangladesh 2013 | Photo and © Gisela Burckhardt

1,130 people died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, over 2000 were badly injured. The accident triggered a broad discussion on cheap clothing production in Asia. spoke with the author Gisela Burckhardt about the causes and consequences of the disaster.

Mrs Burckhard, in your book “Todschick” (i.e. drop-dead chic) you describe the inhuman conditions in Rana Plaza and other garment factories in Bangladesh. Following your on-site research, you come to the conclusion that not only discounters such as H&M and C&A had garments manufactured here at the cheapest possible rates, but also luxury brands such as Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger. So a high price is therefore no guarantee for fair manufacturing conditions?

Many people think that if they shop at Hugo Boss, they’re also purchasing adequate production conditions. But expensive clothing is not manufactured fair per se. Hugo Boss has some of its manufacturing done in the same factories as H&M and C&A. The design and fabric are perhaps of better quality, but the the seamstresses’ labour conditions are the same.

How can that be changed?

The first step would be for the companies to know their supply chain and attend to labour conditions. Every company is internationally obligated to do so, according to the UN’s guidelines for business and human rights. And the second step would be to support the suppliers by making fair working conditions possible for them, which above all would mean paying a fair price.

Sewer in a garment factory of Dhaka 2013 Sewer in a garment factory of Dhaka 2013 | Photo and © Gisela Burckhardt

The garment industry invokes certificates, from the TÜV and other agencies, that are intended to guarantee safety and social standards. Can these certificates protect employees?

No. Although the TÜV certificates or certificates from the organisation Social Accountability International (SAI) are high-grade, they are often purchased in production sites or the monitor is hoodwinked. There’s been one inspection after another in the last 20 years without improvement in labour conditions. Only the auditing companies profit, and it’s a billion-euro business. In Bangladesh and Pakistan there are factories that have been inspected for upholding social standards, and burned down or collapsed a couple of months later! Only after the fact was it determined that there were no emergency exits.

But these audits only inspect the upholding of social standards, not the structural statics of the buildings…

True, but they have to check to see that the building has the right papers from the government regulatory agency. In the case of Rana Plaza for instance, a few storeys were added without approval. The audit would have had to register this.

The companies are in fact subject to OECD guidelines, a code of conduct for responsible action world-wide. They are standard-bearers for sustainable development and the precautionary principle, among other things. Why have the OECD guidelines no teeth?

Neither the OECD guidelines nor those of the UN are legally binding. These are voluntary measures and companies can uphold them or not. For this reason we are demanding a statutory provision, because only this way can a company be held liable as well.

Demonstration for a safe workplace, 2013 Demonstration for a safe workplace, 2013 | Photo and © Gisela Burckhardt

Do the consumers have to investigate where their T-shirt comes from and under what conditions it was produced? 

That’s the way it has been until now. At this time, together with German Development Minister Gerd Müller, we are in negotiations with business leaders on the new garment manufacturing alliance. The industry is now approaching us and is seeking to enter the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles, but that also only works on a voluntary basis. That is why we want a statutory provision for all companies.

Is there no uniform and trustworthy sustainability seal?

No, and there won’t be in future. We distinguish between a product seal and a company seal: whereas the product seal only checks the individual product and for the most part merely green-washes the company, in the case of a company seal, the entire firm commits itself to fair trade and fair purchasing policies. We therefore support a company seal, similar to the Fair Ware Wear Foundation.

There seems to be an overall lack of transparency in garment manufacturing.

Yes, these audits are not published. The customer gets them, as a rule that’s the factory, since only a factory with an audit gets commissions. The workers and the unions don’t get to see the audit results.

How has the German fashion world responded to these conditions in the wake of the disaster in Bangladesh?

About 200 companies have entered into the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, but not Hugo Boss. The participants in the agreement have committed themselves to reveal their suppliers to the accord’s supervisory board, who will now investigate the manufacturing plants on-site for the first time with respect to building statics, electricity and fire safety. That has been a big boost  towards improving production conditions. And the public is now alert. The press is reporting and there is a far greater general awareness of the issue than it was before the collapse of the factory.

But the compensation payments are dragging on and on … 

Yes, that is a downright scandal: there are 8.5 million US dollars in the ILO fund available. Without these payments the affected families can scarcely rebuild their lives. To date, at least 14 companies have either paid nothing or too little into the fund, to adequately compensate the victims.
Gisela Burckhardt is an expert in development policy and chair of Femnet (Feminist Perspectives on Economics, Politics, Society). For the last 15 years, she has devoted herself to improvement in the garment industry’s labour conditions as part of the CCC (Clean Clothes Campaign).

Gisela Burckhardt: Todschick. Edle Labels, billige Mode – unmenschlich produziert. Heyne Verlag München, 2014 ISBN: 978-3-453-60322-6